Natchez remembers Rhythm Club

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 23, 2009

On April 23, 1940, people from miles around assembled to experience a night of quality entertainment. Walter Barnes and his Swing Orchestra were going to perform at the Rhythm Club in Natchez.

This Chicago-based group was often considered on par with other legendary groups of the era such as those led by Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers, Edward “Duke” Ellington and William “Count” Basie. In fact, Walter Barnes and his group often performed long standing engagements at Big Al Capone’s Cicero, Ill., Cotton Club.

Archival documents indicate that well over 700 revelers were in and around the 38-foot by 120-foot tin structure located on St. Catherine Street. The dance hall had been decorated with flowers and dangling Spanish moss. Because the moss often had small bugs within, it had been sprayed with “flit” which was a petroleum based insecticide.

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At some point during this joyous evening, a fire erupted claiming the lives of 209 people. There was not a single family in this community that was not touched by this tragic event. There were lost mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, classmates, co-workers and employees. A generation of our community’s prospective citizens and leadership would be gone forever.

That was 69 years ago. Today, the Rhythm Club fire is listed as number four of the top 10 deadliest structural fires in our nation’s history, which records go back to the 1800s.

Each of our lives are now safer, as national fire safety and building codes were changed due this event. Plans are now under way to pay homage to this chapter in Natchez history, and you are invited to take part. Not to mourn the dead, but to celebrate the lives and spirit of those lost souls.

The first of this year’s commemorative events will be at 5 p.m. today (the actual anniversary date) when the Natchez Business & Civic League will place a memorial wreath at the Rhythm Club marker on the bluff overlooking the river. This will be a reflective moment of remembrance, and is scheduled to feature musical presentations by the Zion Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Rev. Lamar Barnes of Brookhaven and Bishop Melvin Jackson.

At 2 p.m. Saturday, on the concrete slab that was once the foundation of the Rhythm Club, survivors of the tragic fire and family members will assemble, at the club’s site 5 St. Catherine Street.

Join us to hear the comments, and share in the song and fellowship to be offered in the closing of this year’s celebration.

I plan to be at each of these events, and do hope to see you there too.

Darrell White is the director of the Natchez Association from the Preservation of African American Culture.